At the Well blog


At the borders of translation in a multilingual environment – from crosslinguistic communication to literary translation

The group of Saari residents of Autumn 2022. Photo: Jussi Virkkumaa

In autumn 2022, translator Emmi Ketonen stayed at the Saari Residence, translating the works of Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik into Finnish. In her blog post, she describes how the everyday communication of the multilingual group of residents made her think about her own work in a new way.

The peaceful workspace and international atmosphere offered by the Saari Residence provoked her to think about translation also on a more general level.

In this multilingual environment, I decided to examine the topic from the perspective of the residents’ everyday communications and thus also approach my thoughts on literary translation from a new point of view.

From September to October, there were a total of eight researchers and artists at the Saari Residence and one who opted for home residence. Four of us were native speakers of Finnish. The rest were born in Mexico, Spain, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Iran, but were living in Finland, the United States, Germany, Estonia and Iceland. During the residency, we all communicated and worked in English, a language that was not native to any of us.

What does translation mean to us was the question I explored as I observed our daily communications.

Different translation theories define the process of translation in different ways, from different perspectives and depending on the purpose of the translation, but in everyday life, translations are a key form of communication between people. Practically speaking, we are constantly surrounded by translations in this global world.

It has been customary to separate literature and literary translations into categories of their own. Fiction is not usually expected to provide informative content like a factual text does. Literary translations are treated as art, entertainment or cultural products. 

Even if a translator of fiction cherishes the message of the book in their translation, it is still more about a union of content and form. A translator must be aware of the characteristics of the text and the ways it works on many levels to be able to approach it as an entity and a composition. In the case of poetry, we are talking about translating comprehensively.

But what is actually going on when we translate words and thoughts from one language to another? Languages work in the same way in many respects, but there are also fundamental differences between language systems.

Let’s take the verb translate as an example. A corresponding word can be found in every native language of the members of our group and in every language of their country of residence. In Finnish, the word is kääntää, in Turkish çevirmek, in German übersetzen (compare översättä in Swedish), in English translate and in Spanish traducir. The word þýða is used in Iceland and переводить in Russian-speaking countries. In Iranian Persian, the word is ترجمه and in Estonian it is tõlkima.

Although the main meaning of these words is the same, they can have new uses or very different connotations that allude to different things.

The original meaning of the Iranian Farsi word  ترجمه (tardjomeh) refers to the interpretation of philosophical texts and lectures, but it has subsequently been used to refer to the interpretation of a wide variety of texts, including non-philosophical ones. The word has a convoluted past between Arabic and Persian, in both of which it has come to be used in a more mundane way.

It is common for meanings to expand in language; old words evolve in new contexts and find a new life. At the same time, throughout history, words have also been adopted from other languages. The word trujamán, still in use in Spain, has evolved from the word tardjomeh.

A similar meaning can also be found in the origin of the Estonian word tõlkima. Finnish has a similar word tulkata, which refers to translating orally, i.e. interpreting, or tulkita, which also means ‘interpret’ in English in the sense of giving a subjective meaning to a thing, text or situation or, according to the Oxford Dictionary, performing a dramatic role or music in a way that conveys one’s understanding of its creator’s ideas.

It is peculiar how in many languages the verb to interpret has been reserved only for translating orally, although in many ways translation is also interpretation. What would happen if we thought of a translator more as an interpreter of the text?

The Icelandic word þýða may differ in spelling from its counterparts in other languages, but it is very similar in terms of its connotations. The word is derived from Old Norse and is also used in the sense of the verbs to explain, to mean and to assure. In short, the word has rhetorical meanings. I cannot help but wonder whether these meanings are somehow related to the history of the language and the communication between ancient peoples, who must have had need for eloquence on many occasions.

In the same way, when I heard that the Russian word переводить is used to mean transferring or moving something in different ways, but that it can also be used in the sense of the verb to convey, I cannot help but wonder whether Russian speakers see their translators as some kind of a guide who leads them into a foreign language and culture by the hand.

The verbs translate and traducir are very close to each other, because they share a root in Latin, as well as the prefix trans, which is also used in such English words as transfer, transport and transform. In English, the prefix trans– could be translated as the word across. For me, the prefix trans– brings up an image of a deep chasm or high wall between languages that requires you to cross borders in order to access another language. Perhaps it would be possible to conclude that crossing such borders is a reference to the creativity a translator is expected to have?

The German word is very close to its Swedish counterpart, as they are united by a similar structure. The prefix über– of the German word corresponds to the Swedish prefix över-. In English, both can be translated, for example, as over or above. Thus übersetzen and översätta could be literally translated into English as put over.

If you think of translation as text that is ‘put over’, it inevitably creates an image of some kind of rewriting or a palimpsest. Translation as ‘writing over’ also brings to mind the unwelcome idea of a translation as a copy of the original text (it makes me think about images I traced through wax paper as a child, which were easy to draw because all you needed was to trace the lines of the original image through the transparent paper). At the same time, ‘rewriting’ also includes the idea of a translation as an independent text, which of course it is, and I would like more people to see it that way.

The verbs denoting ‘to translate’ in Finnish and Turkish, kääntää and çevirmek, share a unified dimension of meaning: both also mean to turn. In other words, some kind of change of position or direction. This meaning is fascinating because it is so very tangible.

Therefore, if I say in my mother tongue Finnish that I am translating a book, it can be interpreted either as me translating the text contained in the book into Finnish, or me turning the book upside down, changing its position. Thus, it can be a book that has been translated or a book on the table that is upside down. But is there also some kind of change of position in a book translated into Finnish, compared to the original text?

In my examples, I have approached language in the manner of the much-criticised Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – as if the thinking and actions of the speaker of the language were guided by that language. However, my interpretations are only my own speculation and intended solely to highlight the differences between languages, while also highlighting the similarities and what they reveal about translation, about existing between languages.

My intention with the above examples is to highlight the variety of ways in which we understand translation in our everyday lives and the variety of words and meanings with which we approach it. Words do not just turn into words in another language.

Words are always interconnected, and therefore, when translating, we are not only translating words, but also the connotations they contain, perhaps associations and even the culture itself.

For translator Kersti Juva, “the smallest unit to be interpreted is a phrase, but it is surrounded by a sentence, a paragraph, a work, an author’s other works, an era, and a culture.”

As a native speaker of Finnish, I feel that the Finnish word kääntää  (to translate, to turn) is naturally the closest to me. Perhaps that is why, when translating, I also think about the turns that take place quite physically. I might turn the book this way and that on my desk and wonder what actually happens when a book is ‘turned’ into another language. When a book is translated, the translation is still the same book, but not identical to the original. If I have seen the original version, I might easily recognise the translated book as the same as the original, or at least it might feel the same. This creates an illusion of equivalence.

I think about soil, turning the soil over with a spade, loosening the soil. Perhaps translating literature also requires you to first loosen the soil to achieve the right consistency, to sow the text written in a foreign language in new soil so that it can sprout and flourish in a new language?

I also think of translations as reflections or echoes of the original works. They are not the same, nor are they meant to be.

This is the paradox of translation; the fact that it is impossible to create the ‘perfect’ translation, because in each one you have to give up something and replace it with something else. And can anyone say where the line goes? To what extent does the translator have the right to distance themselves from the original text, to what extent from the norms of the target language?

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges has written a short story called Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, which tells the story of the French writer Pierre Menard who does not want to ‘merely’ translate or copy Cervantes’ famous work, but to completely rewrite it. Menard notes that in order to succeed in this task, he must use exactly the same words as Cervantes and forget a few whole centuries. Finally, when Menard’s writing is reviewed, not a single word has changed. Yet Menard’s work is not the same as the original – one reason being that the works were written at different times and by different writers. In other words, they are two separate works that can be interpreted in different ways.

According to Borges, the reader has the primary responsibility for both the existence of literature and the meanings the text carries, because when reading, the reader reflects themselves into the text: “Every time we read a book, the book has changed, the connotation of the words is different.”

A translator is also a reader of the book whose challenge it is to both translate it according to their own interpretations and to leave the translation open to the interpretations of future readers. It goes without saying, therefore, that a translator participates in the translation process not only as an intermediary or instrument, but as someone who inevitably reflects a piece of themselves into the translated text.

A translator does not strive for a perfectly equivalent result, but to maintain a balance between what they translate and how they translate it. In Tarja Roinila’s words: “Translation is not either–or but both–and.” In the best-case scenario, a translator succeeds in respecting both the original text and the target language by finding a balance, working between the languages, for the benefit of their own translation and of their own work.

Emmi Ketonen, translator

Text translated from Finnish to English by Semantix.


Borges, Jorge Luis: “Mies joka kirjoitti ‘Quijoten'”, in Kolmas maailma. Uutta proosaa espanjankielisestä Amerikasta. Ed. & Finnish translation by Matti Rossi. Tammi, 1966.

Borges, Jorge Luis: Viisi aihetta. Finnish translation by Pentti Saaritsa. Aviador, 2021.

Juva, Kersti: Löytöretki suomeen. The Finnish Literature Society (SKS), 2019.

Roinila, Tarja: ”Kääntäjä kirjoittaa”, in Samat sanat. Kirjoituksia kääntäjän elämästä. Ed. Mika Kukkonen. Teos, 2022.

I want to thank my translator colleague Saana Rusi for the tip on Pierre Menard!